A Battle for Local Control: Sharon Township's Struggle and the Implications for Us All


Image Credit - David Burdette, via Wikipedia

Sharon Township could lose its right to a say in planning a proposed 400-acre gravel mine at 19024 Pleasant Lake Road if three new bills in Lansing pass.

New bills were introduced into the Michigan Legislature on May 4 to remove Township control over gravel and sand mines' permission structure and transfer it to Michigan’s environmental protection agency, the Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment. House Bills 4526, 4527, and 4528 are renewed attempts at this which have previously been defeated in years past.

If these bills are ratified into law, it could mean a loss of local control for Sharon Township, which is in the middle of the planning process with StoneCo, a supplier of road construction raw materials across Michigan, Indiana, and Ohio. StoneCo has applied to establish a 400-acre site at Pleasant Lake Road. The site is between Chelsea and Manchester, about two-thirds of the way to Manchester going south from Chelsea.

Image Credit: StoneCo

The sheer scale of the project has gotten the attention of some area residents. Barbra Schmid, a member of the Sharon Preservation Society, a local volunteer organization that exists to keep Sharon Township’s citizens informed and to advocate local opinions to elected officials, told the Sun Times News that she is concerned about the side effects of the mine should it be approved.

“I think it could be potentially damaging in a number of ways. The number of impacts that a gravel mine can have on the area around it,” Schmid said. “They include health safety, rural character, or the compatibility with the area around where the mine would be.”

Current Michigan law specifies that any application to open a mine like this must be approved by the township unless there is a safety or environmental issue that would harm residents. As M-Live has reported, Kenneth Vermeulen, an attorney representing StoneCo, claimed that the township’s existing rules on the project violated state law.

StoneCo, through their attorney Vermeulen, declined to comment for this article, citing that the application is ongoing. StoneCo is a subsidiary of CRH, an Irish industrial material and parts supplier currently “employing 73,000 people at 3,155 locations in 29 countries,” according to the Irish News.

Sharon Township Supervisor Peter Psarouthakis said that the township is not anti-mine, but they are simply trying to follow the process application properly. He is on the fence on whether or not he supports the process when he spoke to this newspaper over the phone last March, “I’m not sure yet.”

“I would say 95 or more percent [of Sharon Township residents] are against it. I’ve only had and seen maybe ten people [over two years] who think it is a good idea or that they should be able to do whatever they want because they own the property,” Psarouthakis said.

As for the proposed changes to state law, HB4526 changes the definition of a “false mining permit application” and a “false permit application causing endangerment.” HB4527 amends the terms of natural resources.

HB4528 amends the 1994 Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act by doing the following:

  • Assigns control of the permitting process of mines to EGLE.
  • Requires a $5,000 application fee.
  • Requires “an environmental impact assessment” with requirements for protection plans for dust control, water quality, and threats to endangered species, as well as other considerations.
  • Establishes a timeline for how the department should treat all applications.

“Effective 14 days after the department receives a mining permit application, the application is considered to be administratively complete,” HB4528 says.

What this means is that assuming the application is filled out correctly, EGLE would have to publish a notification of the new mine in a local newspaper, alert the local municipality where the mine is proposed to go, post a notice on their website with a description of what will be mined by whom, and provide information on a public comment period “in writing.” If even one person submits a comment that “constitute sufficient cause or that there is sufficient public interest,” then “the department may conduct a public hearing on the application in the county where the mining area is proposed to be located” with notice of the date and time posted 5 to 28 days beforehand.

If 15 days pass after the public comment period, or there is no public hearing, “and not more than 180 days after the date, the department determines that the mining permit application is administratively complete.” EGLE can either approve or deny the application. Additional language in HB4528 establishes monitoring requirements and empowers EGLE monitoring powers and disciplinary tools for firms that violate the terms of the approval. It also establishes mandatory reporting by the applicant firm and records to be kept for at least two years.

Schmid questioned the ability of EGLE to have enough staff and funding to vet and monitor every mine application adequately. Groups opposed to these bills, which have been introduced and reintroduced over the years, have also lamented the loss of control and transparency.

“Michigan residents elect their local leaders to act on their behalf for the best interests of the community and the people they serve,” Neil Sheridan, the Executive Director of the Michigan Township Association, a nonprofit that advocates for township governments in Michigan, said in a press release when similar legislation was proposed last year. Sheridan added that the bill at the time “strips away the ability of local officials to advocate for and respond to their communities’ wants and needs. The impact that mining operations can have on a community or neighborhood can be far-reaching and last for decades. Local oversight, on behalf of those most affected, is critical, and we urge senators to respect and retain local control.”

Megan Tinsley, Water Policy Director at the Michigan Environmental Council, a statewide environmental protection lobbying group that opposes these bills according to the Detroit Free Press, told the Sun Times News that moving permission for gravel and sand mining from local control to EGLE “would equate to a rubber stamp” in the planning permission process.

HB4528 also creates a complaint process, which “is the aggrieved person’s sole recourse” and would have to be filed within 90 days of the offending incident causing a threat to “public health or safety, the environment, or natural resources.” It would create a case hearing where EGLE would determine if the mine operator was at fault, with punishments including permit revocation, suspension of operation, or an order “to undertake other such actions.”

Anyone who loses a complaint against a mine would be required to pay for EGLE’s legal fees.

The Michigan Attorney General would have the power to enforce civil action.

There are also environmental concerns over groundwater, the farmability of the land being mined and the adjacent land, and airborne silica dust.

“What is the biggest concern is that it is stripping away the gravel and clay deposits that seal our groundwater, which is often our drinking water source, from any kind of contamination. And those materials also provide natural filtration. Just the act of mining removes those layers, and the aquifer could become vulnerable to contaminants that may not be associated with the mining. They might just be there from a previous activity,” Tinsley said.

Others worry about the number of trucks that will be needed to go to and from the Pleasant Lake Road location if it is approved, with concerns ranging from the increase in the possibility of accidents to the wear and tear of the roads from gravel haulers diminishing the quaint rural nature of Sharon Township.

Noise concerns were addressed on page 11 of HB4528, creating an 8-hour window where the noise of the mine must be within a specific range of adjacent property; no more than a 75-decibel difference if the mine is adjacent to a residentially zoned lot or 85 decibels if it is adjacent to a commercially zoned lot.

Other groups like the Michigan Aggregate Association and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce advocate for companies like StoneCo, citing an economic need to provide the sand and gravel needed to fix Michigan’s infamous poorly maintained roads.

“It is obvious that the cottage industry of attempting to stop sand and gravel permitting is nearly at epidemic levels across the state and placing an unfair burden on many local governments, which are not equipped to make decisions on the supply needs of the entire state of Michigan. This plan would take the politics out of the permitting process by placing it in the hands of environmental experts at EGLE, just like those other industries,” John Sellek, a spokesman for the Michigan Aggregates Association, told the Sun Times News via email, Wednesday. “It is no coincidence that both a Republican majority legislature and a Democratic majority legislature have both moved forward with a discussion on this needed policy change. This is because if every permit is allowed to be endlessly delayed or denied, it would be impossible for Governor Whitmer and future governors to ever fix the damn roads.”

Opposition groups, both local and statewide, have questioned the idea that Michigan has a shortage of aggregate supplies.

The Sun Times News could not secure an interview with the Executive Director of the Michigan Aggregates Association for this article, hence the quote from Sellek. But Needham was quoted in the Detroit Free Press on Wednesday that the Not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) perception of gravel mining for needed road repairing limited material supply “due to activists who intimidate local elected officials into delaying and denying the opening of new mines. We currently have a cottage industry of traveling so-called experts who are making their way around the state trying to break the aggregate supply chain.”

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